The Fathers, the Reformed, and the Orthodox Say ‘No’ to Eternal Trinitarian Subordination

As a follow-up to my last post concerning the view held by some evangelical theologians regarding the eternal relations of authority and submission between the Father and the Son in the immanent Trinity, I thought that I would cite a section from T.F. Torrance’s book entitled The Christian Doctrine of God, One Being Three Persons (pp.183-185) that I find relevant to the debate. Fair warning, this is not an easy read but is very important for our understanding of the Trinity. If you find it overly difficult, you can skip to the final paragraph to get the basic gist:Thomas_F._Torrance

The formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity at the Council of Constantinople was certainly indebted to the Cappadocian theologians, especially to Gregory Nazianzen who presided over its opening session, and as with them care was taken to steer between unipersonalism and tritheism. However, the main development did not follow the line advocated by the Cappadocians in grounding the unity of the Godhead in the Person of the Father as the unique and exclusive Principle of the Godhead, but reverted to the doctrine of the Son as begotten of the Being of the Father and made a similar affirmation of the Holy Spirit. In deliberate reaffirmation of Nicene theology it operated on the basis laid down by Athanasius, particularly as filled out and strengthened by the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. This had seen further clarification through Epiphanius regarding the interrelation between the Unity and the Trinity of God, and was to see full-orbed development through Cyril of Alexandria. For Athanasius the concept of Triunity was already embedded in his understanding of the homoousion which, with its rejection of any notion either of undifferentiated oneness or of partitive relations between the three divine Persons, carried with it the conception of eternal distinctions and internal relations in the Godhead as wholly and mutually indwelling one another in the one identical perfect Being of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. It was through the Trinity, Athanasius held, that we believe in the Unity of God, and yet it is only in recognition of the indivisible oneness and identity of Being in the Son and the Spirit with the Father that we rightly apprehend the Holy Trinity.

It is in this very light that we are to understand how Athanasius regarded the divine Monarchia. He certainly thought of the Father as the Arche (Ἀρχή—and Αἴτιος, but not Αἰτία or Cause) of the Son in that he has eternally begotten the Son. He thus declared ‘We know only one Arche’, but he immediately associated the Son with that Arche, for, he added, ‘we profess to have no other Form of Godhead (τρόπον Θεότητος) than that of the only God.’ While the Son is associated with the Arche of the Father in this way, he cannot be thought of as an Arche subsisting in himself, for by his very Nature he is inseparable from the Father of whom he is the Son. By the same token, however, the Father cannot be thought of as an Arche apart from the Son, for it is precisely as Father that he is Father of the Son. ‘The Father and the Son are two, but the Unity (Μονάς) of Godhead is one and indivisible. And thus we preserve the one Ἀρχή of the Godhead, not two Ἀρχαί, so that there is strictly a Monarchy (Μοναρχία).’ It is in this light also that we must understand the Synodal Letter of Athanasius to the people of Antioch in which he joined with others in acknowledging ‘a Holy Trinity, but one Godhead, and one Arche, and that the Son is of one Being with the Father, while the Holy Spirit is proper to and inseparable from the Being of the Father and the Son.’

Thus while accepting along with the Cappadocians the formulation of One Being, Three Persons, Athanasius had such a strong view of the complete identity, equality and unity of the three divine Persons within the Godhead, that he declined to advance a view of the Monarchy in which the oneness of God was defined by reference to the Father alone or to the Person of the Father. The Mone Arche (μονὴ Ἀρχή) or Μοναρχία) is identical with the Trinity, the Monas with the Trias (the Μονάς with the Τριάς), and it is precisely in the Trias that we know God to be Monas. Athanasius actually preferred to speak of God as Monas rather than as Arche, since his understanding of the Monas was essentially as the Trias: God is eternally and unchangeably Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three Persons who, while always Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in their coindwelling relations are the Triune God. The Monarchia or the Monas is essentially and intrinsically trinitarian in the inner relations of God’s eternal Ousia

It is important to throw the spotlight on this development today for it is actually somewhat different from what is found in the usual text-book tradition: it was upon the Athanasian-Epiphanian basis that classical Christian theology developed into its flowering in the great work of Cyril of Alexandria. In our day it has been upon the Athanasian-Epiphanian-Cyriline basis, together with the trinitarian teaching of Gregory Nazianzen who insisted that the Monarchia may not be limited to one Person, that doctrinal agreement on the doctrine of the Holy Trinity has been reached between Orthodox and Reformed Churches. It is of particular significance for our discussion here that the conception of perichoresis played a crucial role in clarifying and deepening the conception of the Monarchia for the understanding of the interlocking of Unity and Trinity, Trinity and Unity, in the doctrine of God. It may be helpful to cite here a paragraph from a document of the Orthodox/Reformed Commission commenting on the Monarchia in this connection.

Of far-reaching importance is the stress laid upon the Monarchy of the Godhead in which all three divine Persons share, for the whole indivisible Being of God belongs to each of them as it belongs to all of them together. This is reinforced by the unique conception of coinherent or perichoretic relations between the different Persons in which they completely contain and interpenetrate one another while remaining what they distinctively are in their otherness as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God is intrinsically Triune, Trinity in Unity and Unity in Trinity. There are no degrees of Deity in the Holy Trinity, as is implied in a distinction between the underived Deity of the Father and the derived Deity of the Son and the Spirit. Any notion of subordination is completely ruled out. The perfect simplicity and indivisibility of God in his Triune Being mean that the Arche (ἀρχή) or Monarchia (μοναρχία) cannot be limited to one Person, as Gregory the Theologian pointed out. While there are inviolable distinctions within the Holy Trinity, this does not detract from the truth that the whole Being of God belongs to all of them as it belongs to each of them, and thus does not detract from the truth that the Monarchy is One and indivisible, the Trinity in Unity and the Unity in Trinity.

5 thoughts on “The Fathers, the Reformed, and the Orthodox Say ‘No’ to Eternal Trinitarian Subordination

  1. Bobby Grow 10 July 2016 / 06:58

    TFT gets it where others do not. I’ve experience this for years, online in particular. I often think to myself, when encountering various theological debates, if only these folks would read TFT much of what they are arguing about would become almost meaningless; or at least brought into such perspective that the terms and emphases of the debate would change dramatically.

    Liked by 2 people

    • marie 10 July 2016 / 07:54

      thank you Bobby 🙂 look forward to the blogs . TFT is a Doctor to the Church who sorely needs to read him!!

      Liked by 1 person

      • The Reformissionary 10 July 2016 / 19:31

        Hi Marie, thanks for the like and for stopping by the blog. Hope to hear from you again!


  2. Bobby Grow 10 July 2016 / 07:02

    I just added you to The Thomas F Torrance Discussion Group (i’m the admin and founder 😉 ). I thought you were in there already. You should link TFT posts like this one in there. I’m going to link this one for you 😉 .

    Liked by 2 people

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